Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful. (The name under which Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was the calotype: from kalos, beauty.) Nobody exclaims, “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is, “I find that ugly thing…beautiful.”
It is common for those who have glimpsed something beautiful to express regret at not having photographed it. So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that often photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful. House-proud hosts may well pull out photographs of the place to show visitors how really sensational it is. We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and—over generations of picture-taking—use it up. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.
Most people are anxious when they’re about to be photographed: not because they fear, as primitives do, being violated but because they fear the camera’s disapproval. People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their “best.” They feel rebuked when the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than they really are. But few are lucky enough to be “photogenic”—that is, to look better in photographs (even when not made-up or flattered by special lighting) than in real life. That photographs are often praised for their candor, their honesty, indicates that most photographs, of course, are not candid. A decade after the Englishman Fox Talbot’s negative-positive process had begun replacing the French daguerreotype in the early 1840s, a German photographer invented the first technique for retouching the negative. His two versions of the same portrait—one retouched, the other not—astounded crowds at the World Exposition held in Paris in 1855 (one of the earliest world fairs, and the first with a photography exhibit). The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.
The consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rectangular images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings never make. A fake painting (one whose attribution is false) falsifies the history of art. A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality. The drama of photography has been the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification and truth-telling.
The truth of photographs is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by romantic ideals of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the new profession of independent journalism. Like the naturalistic novelist and the reporter, the photographer was supposed to unmask hypocrisy and ignorance. This was a task which painting, no matter how many nineteenth-century painters shared Millet’s belief that le beau c’est le vrai, was too slow and cumbersome to take on. Astute observers noticed that there was something naked about the truth a photograph conveyed, even when its taker did not mean to pry. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851) Hawthorne has the young photographer Holgrave remark about the daguerreotype portrait that “while we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture on, even if he could detect it.”
The invention of cameras made possible a peculiar heroism of vision. Freed from the beginning from having to make narrow choices (as painters did) about what images were worth contemplating, because of the rapidity with which cameras recorded anything, photographers made seeing into a new kind of enterprise: as if seeing itself, pursued with sufficient avidity and single-mindedness, could indeed reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful.
The earliest photographers talked as if the camera were a copying machine; as if, while people operate cameras, it is the camera that sees. Photography was welcomed as a means of easing the burden of ever-accumulating information and sense-impressions. Fox Talbot, whose claim to the title of photography’s inventor is as good as that of any of the other principal contenders, was a gentleman polymath, scholar of ancient languages, mathematician, Fellow of the Royal Academy, and artist of sorts. In his book of photographs The Pencil of Nature (1844) he relates that the idea of photography came to him at Lake Como, on the Italian Journey that the romantic poets had made obligatory for Englishmen of inherited wealth like himself. Trying to make landscape drawings with the aid of a device called the camera lucida, which projected the image on the paper but did not fix it, he was led to reflect, he says, “on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass of the camera throws upon the paper” and to wonder “if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably.” The camera suggested itself as a new form of notation whose allure was precisely that it was impersonal—because it was recording a “natural” image, “by the agency of light alone, without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil.”
The photographer was thought to be an acute but noninterfering observer—a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras give an impersonal, scientific result yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what is “there” but of what an individual sees: not just a record but an evaluation of the world.* It became clear that there is not just a simple activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing,” which is both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform.
A Frenchman with a daguerreotype camera was already roaming the Pacific in 1842, the same year as the first volume of Excursions daguerriennes, vues et monuments les plus remarquables du globe was published in Paris. The 1850’s was the great age of photographic orientalism: Maxime du Camp, making a Grand Tour of the Middle East with Flaubert in 1850-1851, concentrated his camera on attractions like the Colossus of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Baalbek, not the daily life of fellahin. Soon, however, travelers with cameras annexed a wider subject matter than famous sites and works of art. “Photographic seeing” meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary. Photographers were supposed to do more than just see the world “as it is,” including its already acclaimed marvels; they were to create interest, by visual decisions.
Photography opened up a new model of free-lance activity—allowing each person to display a certain unique, avid sensibility. Photographers departed on their cultural and class and scientific safaris, searching for striking images. They would entrap the world, whatever the cost in patience and discomfort, for this active, acquisitive, evaluating, gratuitous modality of vision. Alfred Stieglitz proudly reports that he had to wait three hours without moving during a fierce snow-storm on February 22, 1893, “awaiting the proper moment” to take his celebrated picture “Fifth Avenue, Winter.” The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has seen) in a fresh way. The quest became the photographer’s trademark in the popular imagination. By the 1920s the photographer had become a modern hero, like the aviator and the anthropologist—without necessarily having to leave home. Readers of the popular press were invited to join “our photographer” on a “journey of discovery,” visiting such new realms as “the world from above,” “the world under the magnifying glass,” “the beauties of every day,” “the miracle of light,” “the beauty of machines,” the picture that can be “found” in the street.
Everyday life apotheosized, and the kind of beauty that only the camera reveals—a corner of material reality that the eye doesn’t see at all or can’t normally isolate, or the overview, as from a plane—are the main targets for the photographer’s conquest. The close-up seemed, for a while, photography’s most original form of seeing. Photographers found that as they more narrowly cropped reality, magnificent “forms” appeared. In the early 1840s the versatile, obsessed Fox Talbot not only composed photographs in the genres taken over from painting—portrait, landscape, still life—but also, as we see in André Jammes’s valuable book, trained his camera on a sea shell, the wings of a butterfly (enlarged with the aid of a solar microscope), a portion of two rows of books in his study. But his subjects are still recognizably a shell, butterfly wings, books. When “natural” seeing was further violated—and the object isolated from its surroundings, rendering it abstract—new conventions about what was beautiful took hold. What is beautiful became just what the eye can’t (or doesn’t) see: that fracturing, dislocating vision that only the camera supplies.
In 1915 Paul Strand took a photograph which he called “Abstract Patterns Made by Bowls.” In 1917, Strand turned to close-ups of machine forms, and throughout the 1920s did close-up nature studies. The new procedure (its heyday was between 1920 and 1935) seemed to promise unlimited visual delights. It worked with equally stunning effect on homely objects; on the nude (a subject one might have supposed to be virtually exhausted by painters); on the tiny cosmologies of nature. Photography seemed to have found its grandiose place, the bridge between art and science, and painters were admonished to learn from the beauties of microphotographs (and telephotos) in Moholy-Nagy’s book The New Vision, which the Bauhaus published in 1928. It was the same year as the appearance of one of the first photographic best-sellers, a book by Albert Renger-Patzsch entitled Die Welt Ist Schön (The World Is Beautiful), which consists of one hundred photographs, mostly close-ups, whose subjects range from a colocasia leaf to workers’ hands. Painting never made so shameless a promise to prove the world beautiful.
The abstracting eye—represented with particular brilliance in the period between the two world wars by some of the work of Strand, as well as of Edward Weston and Minor White—was probably possible only after the discoveries made by modernist painters and sculptors. (Both Strand and Weston acknowledge the relation of their ways of seeing to those of Kandinsky and Brancusi, and may have been attracted to the hard edge of cubist style in reaction to the softness of Stieglitz’s images.) It is just as true, as Moholy-Nagy points out in The New Vision, that the technique and spirit of photography directly influenced cubism. But for all the ways in which, from the 1840s on, painters and photographers have mutually influenced and pillaged each other, their procedures are fundamentally opposed. The painter constructs; the photographer discloses. That is, the identification of the subject of a photograph always affects our perception of it—as it does not, necessarily, in a painting. Weston’s “Cabbage Leaf” (1931) looks like folds of drapery; a title is needed in order to identify it. Thus the image makes its point in two ways. The form is pleasing, and it is—surprise!—the form of a cabbage leaf. If it were drapery, it wouldn’t seem so beautiful. We already know that beauty, from the fine arts. Hence the formal qualities of style—the central issue in painting—are, at most, of secondary importance in photography, while what a photograph is “of” is always of primary importance. What looks like the photograph of an austere crown becomes more interesting when we find out it is a splash of milk.
Photography is commonly regarded as an instrument for knowing things. When Thoreau said, “You can’t say more than you see,” he took for granted that sight had pride of place among the senses. But when, several generations later, Thoreau’s dictum is quoted by Strand to praise photography, it no longer has the same meaning. Cameras did not simply make it possible to apprehend more by seeing (through microphotography and teledetection). They changed seeing itself. Thoreau still lived in a poly-sensual world, though one in which “observation” was already beginning to acquire the stature of a moral duty; and he was talking about seeing only in connection with what he thought was worth seeing (he understood the context as “nature”), a seeing not cut off from the other senses. When Strand quotes Thoreau, he has assumed another attitude toward the sensorium: the didactic cultivation of perception implicit in all modernist movements in the arts.
The most relevant version of this attitude is not in painting, the art which photography encroached on remorselessly and plagiarized from enthusiastically since its beginnings, and with which it still coexists in febrile rivalry. According to the usual account, what photography did was to usurp the painter’s task of providing images which accurately “represent” the world (“for which the painter should be deeply grateful,” insists Weston). In so far as photography does occupy a territory abandoned by painting, its aims more resemble those of poetry now than painting as it was then.
The ethos of photography—that of schooling us (in Moholy-Nagy’s phrase) in “intensive seeing”—is closer to that of modernist poetry than that of painting. (With exception made for “Super Realism,” the current revival of the photo-realism of Scheeler and Hopper which is not content with merely imitating photographs but means to show that a painting can be more “realistic,” painting is still largely ruled by suspicion of what Duchamp called the merely “retinal.”) As painting has become more and more conceptual, poetry (since Eliot, Pound, and Williams) has more and more defined itself as concerned with the visual. Poetry’s commitment to concreteness and purity of language parallels photography’s commitment to pure seeing. Both imply discontinuity, fragmentation, wrenching things from their context (to see them in a “fresh way”), then reassembling them arbitrarily, by collage.
While most people taking photographs are only seconding received notions of the beautiful, ambitious professionals usually think they are challenging them. According to heroic modernists like Weston, as the recent publication of his diaries or Daybooks makes clear, the photographer’s venture is elitist, prophetic, subversive, revelatory. The great photographers acclaimed themselves as performing the Blakean task of cleansing the senses, “revealing to others the living world around them,” as Weston describes his own work in 1931, “showing to them what their own unseeing eyes had missed.”
Although Weston often and vehemently claimed to be indifferent to the question of whether photography is an art, he still made all the romantic assumptions about the photographer as artist. By the century’s second decade, certain photographers confidently took over the rhetoric of vanguard art; armed with cameras, they were doing rude battle with conformist sensibilities, busy fulfilling Pound’s summons to Make It New. Photography, not “soft, gutless painting”—says Weston with virile disdain—is best equipped to “bore into the spirit of today.” Weston’s Daybooks are full of hectic premonitions of impending change and declarations of the importance of the visual shock therapy that photographers were administering. “Old ideals are crashing on all sides, and the precise uncompromising camera vision is, and will be more so, a world force in the revaluation of life.”
Weston’s version of the photographer’s agon shares many themes with the heroic vitalism of the 1920s popularized by D.H. Lawrence: affirmation of the sensual life, rage at bourgeois sexual hypocrisy, the cult of artistic egotism, manly appeals for a union with nature. (Photography is “a way of self-development,” Weston writes in 1930, “a means to discover and identify oneself with all the manifestations of basic forms—with nature, the source.”) But while Lawrence wanted to restore things in their sensual integrity, a photographer—even one whose passions seem so reminiscent of Lawrence’s—is necessarily insisting on the preeminence of one sense: sight.
Contrary to what Weston claims, the habit of photographic seeing creates estrangement from, rather than union with, nature. Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, which is reinforced by the discrepancies between the way the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective that were much remarked by the public in the early days of picture taking. (Once people began to think photographically, they stopped talking about “photographic distortion,” as it was called. Now, as William Ivins, Jr., has pointed out, they actually hunt for that distortion.) Thus, one of the perennial successes of photography has been its strategy of turning living beings into things, things into living beings. Weston’s gorgeous series of close-ups of peppers taken in 1929 and 1930 are voluptuous in a way that his female nudes never are. The nude is seen in sections, making it abstract; the pepper is photographed so that it suggests a woman’s torso.
The Bauhaus theoreticians were dazzled by the beauty of the forms in industrial and scientific photography. And, indeed, the camera has recorded few images more interesting formally than those taken by metallurgists. But the Bauhaus view of photography has not prevailed. No one now considers the beauty revealed in photographs to be epitomized by scientific microphotography. In the main tradition of the beautiful in photography, beauty requires the imprint of a human decision: that this would make a good picture; and that the good picture would make some comment. It proved more important to reveal the elegant form of a Mexican toilet bowl, the subject of a series of photographs Weston did in 1925, than the poetic magnitude of a snowflake or a crystal.
For Weston beauty itself was subversive—as seemed confirmed when some people were scandalized by his ambitious nudes. In fact, Weston—followed by André Kertész and Bill Brandt—made nude photography respectable. Now photographers are more likely to emphasize the ordinary humanity of their revelations. Though photographers have not ceased to look for beauty, photography is no longer thought to give, under the aegis of beauty, “a new world vision,” as Weston put it. Heroic modernists, like Weston and Cartier-Bresson, who understand photography as a genuinely new way of seeing (precise, intelligent, even scientific), have been challenged by a later generation of photographers, like Robert Frank, who want a camera eye that is democratic, not piercing, not trying to set new standards for seeing. Weston’s claim that “photography has opened the blinds to a new world vision” seems typical of the overoxygenated hopes of modernism in all the arts during the first third of the century—hopes since abandoned. Although the camera did make a psychic revolution, it was hardly in the positive, romantic sense that Weston envisaged.
In so far as photography does peel away the dry wrappers of habitual seeing, it creates another habit of seeing: fragmented, intense, sentimental. But “photographic seeing” has to be constantly renewed with new shocks, whether of subject matter or technique, so as to produce the impression of violating ordinary vision. For, challenged by the revelations of photographers, ordinary seeing tends to accommodate to photographs. The “avant-garde” vision of Strand in the 1920s, of Weston in the late Twenties and early Thirties, has been quickly assimilated. Their rigorous close-up studies of plants, shells, leaves, time-withered trees, kelp, driftwood, eroded rocks, pelican’s wings, gnarled cypress roots, and the gnarled hands of the poor have become clichés of a merely “photographic” way of seeing. What it once took a very intelligent eye to see, anyone can see now. Instructed by photographs, everyone is able to visualize that once purely literary conceit, the geography of the body: for example, photographing a pregnant woman so that her body looks like a hillock, a hillock so that it looks like the body of a pregnant woman.
Increased familiarity does not explain why certain conventions of beauty get used up while others remain. The attrition is moral as well as perceptual. Weston and Strand could hardly have imagined how these notions of beauty could become so banal, yet it seems inevitable once one insists—as Weston did—on so bland an ideal of beauty as perfection. Whereas the painter, according to Weston, has to improve nature “by self-imposition,” the photographer has “proved that nature offers an endless number of perfect ‘compositions’—order everywhere.”
Behind the belligerent stance of the modernists was an astonishingly generous acceptance of the world. For Weston, who spent most of his photographic life in the Walden of the 1920s, the California coast near Carmel, it was relatively easy to speak of finding order. For Aaron Siskind, a photographer of the generation after Strand and a New Yorker, who began his career by taking architectural photographs and genre photographs of city people, the question is one of creating order. “When I make a photograph,” Siskind writes, “I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order.” Cartier-Bresson defines the photographer as someone who “finds the structure of the world—revels in the pure pleasure of form,” who discloses that “in all this chaos, there is order.” But perhaps it is impossible to talk about the perfection of the world without sounding unctuous.
Displaying the perfection of the world was too sentimental, too ahistorical a notion of beauty to sustain photography. It seems inevitable that Weston, more committed than Strand ever was to abstraction, to the discovery of forms, produced a much narrower body of work than Strand did. Thus Weston never felt moved to do socially conscious photography; and, except for his Mexican period (1923-1926), shunned cities. Strand, like Cartier-Bresson, was attracted to the picturesque desolations and damages of urban life. But even far from nature, Strand and Cartier-Bresson—one could add Walker Evans—still photograph with the same fastidious eye that discerns “order” everywhere.
The view of Stieglitz and Strand and Weston—that photographs should be, first of all, beautiful (that is, beautifully composed)—seems thin now, too obtuse to the truth of disorder; even as the optimism about science and technology which lay behind the Bauhaus view of photography seems almost pernicious. Weston’s images, however admirable, however beautiful, are simply not interesting to most people now, while those taken by the mainly forgotten mid-nineteenth century photographers collected in French Primitive Photography and those of Atget, for example, enthrall us more than ever.
The judgment of Atget as “not a fine technician” that Weston made in his Daybooks perfectly reflects the coherence of Weston’s view and his distance from contemporary taste. “Halation destroyed much, and the color correction not good,” Weston notes; “his instinct for subject matter was keen, but his recording weak—his construction inexcusable.” Contemporary taste faults Weston rather than Atget and the other masters of the demotic tradition of photography. It is precisely imperfect technique that breaks the bland equation of “nature” and “beauty.” Nature has become more a subject of nostalgia and indignation than an object of contemplation, as marked by the distance of taste which separates the last great body of photographs in the Bauhaus tradition, Andreas Feininger’s The Anatomy of Nature (1956), from current photographic imagery of nature defiled.
Darker, history-laden models of beauty have inspired a revaluation of the photography of the past and, in an apparent revulsion against beauty, recent generations of photographers stand ready to show the pain, the disorder of the world. But notwithstanding the aims of indiscreet, unposed, informal, often harsh photography—to reveal “truth,” not beauty—photography still beautifies. At the very least, the real has a pathos. And that pathos is—beauty. (The beauty of the poor, for example.)
Weston’s celebrated “Neil, Nude” (1925) works both because of its subject, the gracious, vulnerable ephebe body (it is of one of Weston’s fiercely loved sons), and because of its sophisticated composition, perfect framing and lighting. But in Jacob Riis’s crude flashlit photographs taken between 1887 and 1890 of blackened, shapeless New York slumdwellers of indeterminate age, amateurism (for instance, “wrong” framing) is one element of their beauty. The evaluation of photographs is always shot through with such aesthetic double standards. Traditionally associated with exemplary models (the representational art of the Greeks showed only youth, the body in its perfection), beauty was now to be found everywhere. Along with people who prettify themselves for the camera, the harried and disaffected and oppressed were assigned their beauty.
There is, finally, no difference—from the point of view of aesthetic advantage—between photography’s effort to embellish reality and the counter-effort to rip off the mask. Even those photographers who disdained to retouch a portrait—a mark of honor for ambitious photographers from Nadar on—tended to protect the sitter in certain ways against the camera’s aggressions. And one of the typical endeavors of portrait photographers, professionally protective toward famous faces (like Garbo’s) which really are “ideal,” is the search for “real” faces, generally sought among the anonymous, the poor, the socially defenseless, the aged, the insane—people indifferent to (or powerless to protest) the camera’s aggressions. Two portraits that Strand did in 1916 of urban casualties, “Blind Woman” and “Man,” are the first examples of this search conducted in close-up. There is a perfect complementarity between Richard Avedon’s fashion photography, which flatters, and the work in which he comes on as The One Who Refuses to Flatter. Examples of the latter are the eight elegant, ruthless portraits, exhibited in May and June of this year at the Museum of Modern Art, of the photographer’s aged father just before his death. The conventional function of portrait painting, to embellish or idealize the subject, has a much more limited career in photography. Generally speaking, the honors have gone to the Cordelias.
Breton said, “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.” Not even the most compassionate photo-journalism is unaffected now by the overlap between the surrealist aesthetics behind so much of our way of looking at photographs and the professed aims of some photographers to serve conscience. It is hard to say whether the photographs W. Eugene Smith took in the Japanese fishing village of Minimata, most of whose inhabitants since the late 1960s are crippled and slowly dying of mercury poisoning, move us more because they are documents of real suffering or because they are superb photographs of “agony” conforming to surrealist standards of beauty. Smith’s already well-known photograph of a dying youth, writhing on his mother’s lap, is a possible image for Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.
Bringing the inaccessible near, rendering the familiar and homely exotic, photographs make everything available as an object of appraisal. The greatest photographers of the century, like Strand and Kertész and Cartier-Bresson, have been precisely those who have gone everywhere and photographed everything. According to their conception of the photographer’s vocation, there are arresting moments, beautiful subjects everywhere. But their results remain notes, quotations, things ripped out of context and brought together in the spurious unity offered by “humanism.”
Every great photographer with truly heterogeneous subject matter comes in the end to something like humanism—of the kind illustrated by Steichen’s Family of Man. Thus Paul Strand, in the later part of his life, turned from his brilliant abstracting work to the touristic, anthologizing tasks of photography. This part of his career, covered in volume two of the sumptuous retrospective monograph under review, starts in 1950, when Strand moved from the United States to France. According to one of the brief appreciative texts accompanying the pictures, their greatness consists in the fact that “his people, whether Bowery derelict, Mexican peon, New England farmer, Italian peasant, French artisan, Breton or Hebrides fisherman, Egyptian fellahin, the village idiot or the great Picasso, are all touched by the same heroic quality—humanity.” What is this humanity? It is a quality things have in common when they are viewed as photographs.
Whatever their “realism,” photographs embody a “romantic” relation to reality—the idea that everything in the world could be made interesting through the camera. But this quality of being interesting, like that of possessing “humanity,” is an empty one. The photographic vision of the world, cutting everything into fragments, each thing deprived of its function, makes everything homologous. Photography is no less reductive when it is being reportorial than when it discovers beautiful forms. By affirming the “humanness” of human beings, the “thingness” of things, photography reduces reality to a tautology. When Cartier-Bresson goes to China, he shows that there are people in China—and that they are Chinese.
In humanist jargon, photographs can explain man to man. But photographs do not explain; they acknowledge. Robert Frank was only being honest when he declared that “to produce an authentic contemporary document, the visual impact should be such as will nullify explanation.” If photographs are messages, the message is both transparent and entirely mysterious. “A photograph is a secret about a secret,” as Diane Arbus observed. “The more it tells you the less you know.”
The force of photography is that it prolongs instants which the normal flow of time immediately closes. This freezing of time—the insolent, poignant stasis of each photograph—is what produces beauty. But the truth cannot be revealed in a dissociated moment—however privileged or (Cartier-Bresson’s word) decisive. The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of serious professional photographers—displacing formalist justifications of their quest for beauty—is precisely that it denies the confusions about “truth” and “beauty” underlying the photographic enterprise.
(This is the fourth in a series of articles on photography.)
November 28, 1974
The view of photography as impersonal seeing has, of course, not vanished. It recurs, at least for rhetorical purposes, among the surrealists; André Breton’s essay of 1920 on Max Ernst begins by calling automatic writing the camera of poetry, the blind instrument that records a landscape to which no human effort can add a single new element. In the opposing aesthetic camp, the Bauhaus theoreticians, like Moholy-Nagy, treated photography as a branch of design, like architecture—creative but impersonal, free of distasteful vestiges of artistic vanity. ↩